Adam O'Fallon Price left Chapel Hill as the bassist for The Mayflies USA, a power pop band that earned national notices in the late nineties and early aughts—the uncertain time just after local indie rock's golden age.
Now Price returns as a novelist, drawing on his band experience with some authorial sleight of hand. The Grand Tour (Aug. 9, Doubleday) is about a washed-up fiction writer who gets a second wind from a Vietnam War memoir and a fan he meets on his book tour.
I called O'Fallon as he and his wife packed their home in Iowa to move back to Chapel Hill. After swapping memories of Hell, Henry's, and the early days of OCSC, we delved into the link between the brief life cycle of the aptly named Mayflies and how a novelist just starting his career could empathize with one who finds new life at the end of the line.
INDY: The late nineties were a weird time. Bands like Archers, Superchunk, and Polvo had just broken up or were touring Europe with string sections. Some bands, like Sorry About Dresden, seemed to be trying to carry on that moment. Others, like you and The Comas, were trying something different. Did you feel the shadow cast by Chapel Hill's indie rock legacy?
ADAM O'FALLON PRICE: Definitely. We got together in '96, right as that wave was petering out. It was still going on, but that high-water mark had passed. We felt like outsiders a little bit, because it seemed like Polvo had the most influence. Everyone was doing that dark, dissonant math-rock kind of stuff.
And you all were so bright and polished.
Yeah, we loved Guided by Voices and The Beatles and The Replacements and Big Star. We were pretty self-consciously out of step with what was going on, and, as you do at that age, had a little internal rallying cry against the world. [Laughs] On the other hand, there were bands doing different things, like Ben Folds and Squirrel Nut Zippers. I think there certainly was a compensation after that super coherent indie-rock moment—all these weird pop bands and country bands started.
You were the It band in Chapel Hill for a minute. You got written up in Spin.
There was a year or two when we felt like something was really going to take off. It was such a weird era, right before the Internet. We were the last generation of bands that went to CMJ hoping to get signed by Elektra or whatever. It sounds preposterous today. For better and worse, we got to enjoy that last moment of the traditional record-company paradigm, and then everything changed.
A lot of bands got sacrificed to that shift.
The late nineties and early aughts were a really awkward moment to be an up-and-coming band. There was a lot more money before that, and I don't know if there's more now, but it's clearer how you get somewhere now than it was then. Bands like Spoon survived that paradigm shift, but they were already big enough to make a coherent transition.
Why had you come to Chapel Hill?
I was in a surprisingly successful high school band in Knoxville, Tennessee. We had a number-one song on college radio. We were called Dim Kitchen, which is horribly embarrassing. It was me and Andy Herod. I got into UNC, and we were desperate to be in a more happening scene. This was 1994, the year for Archers and all that stuff, which we liked. So I moved the band with me and then I dropped out, predictably. We broke up and Andy started The Comas; I played in that band as well.
Talk about the transition to becoming a novelist. You had a short story in The Paris Review ...
I moved to L.A. in the early aughts and started screenwriting. Then I went back to school and started tinkering with fiction. UNC has a really good undergraduate creative writing program, and I realized that an MFA was a viable next step. I got into Cornell. When you get into your mid-thirties, becoming a successful rock musician seems kind of silly. I increasingly loved writing, and it was something you could age gracefully into. Forty is essentially dead if you're a rock musician and just getting going if you're a novelist.
Did touring with Mayflies inform your depiction of a book tour?
At least in the amount of alcohol the characters are drinking. [Laughs] We did a lot of sleeping on floors and couches, as you do, so I did try to imagine that for someone with hotels booked for them. When the book sold and my editor got ahold of it, she disabused me of some things so it resembled what an actual book tour would look like.
The protagonist meets a super-fan—that must have happened to you in Mayflies.
We didn't have that many fans, but occasionally we did have these very intense fans, which must have been a kind of lonely role to play—the Mayflies super-fan. [Laughs]
How did this story come together?
The first chapter was originally a short story about this older guy who has failed in various ways and then experiences this late-life success. I thought these characters had more legs. I had wanted to be a successful musician, but never made a living doing it. I'd gotten into my thirties, afraid of feeling like, what if none of this ever happens? The novel is fed by the anxiety of failure. The main character is a manifestation of my worry of never amounting to anything, or amounting to something too late.
I wondered how, at the start of your literary career, you identified with a character who gets a surprise second act after his literary career hits the skids. Now I see.
He's sort of a proxy for those anxieties and disappointments I'd felt through my twenties and thirties, though it's a bleaker, exaggerated version of what I went through. I'm not trying to make a claim of having had it hard. Novels and stories are often enlarging—you don't want it to be caricature, but a magnification of smaller, more local anxieties. It's definitely a more disastrous version, but it absolutely came from that experience for me.
It's a darkly funny book, with cantankerous characters, but it's also kind of redemptive.
Yeah, Richard is a misanthrope, but I don't think the book fully endorses his take on things. There's a space between his point of view and mine. It's really a pretty dark go through a lot of it, but at the end, I wanted to leave a little glimmer of hope. Certainly I wouldn't want anyone to think he's meant to be a really cool guy. [Laughs] But I do, for that reason, find him interesting to write.
Does it feel significant to launch your first book in Chapel Hill?
Doing it here, with a lot of longtime friends who've seen me in different incarnations, is very gratifying. I'm looking forward to getting back into playing some music. It's an embarrassment of riches here, and everyone still has projects. It'll be fun to get some dad rock together.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Second Life"